The Best-Kept Vintage Secret in Paris
PARIS — Not long after Rihanna wore a vintage pink Chanel puffer for her pregnancy announcement, another example of the very same coat appeared — at an auction in Paris, where it was sold for 2,500 euros ($2,830), beating its high estimate by 66 percent. Not that it came from Rihanna’s closet, though the actual owner has her own level of fame.
That piece was one of several hundred put on the block by a single collector known as Catherine B: a flame-haired, age-indeterminate, extravagantly accessorized pioneer of the luxury resale game.
For almost 30 years, Catherine Benier has been buying and selling the crème de la crème of pre-owned Hermès and Chanel handbags, jewelry, scarves and other accessories out of her Left Bank boutique, a listed landmark that, at slightly less than 100 square feet, makes shopping a one-to-one experience by default.
But though doll sized, Les 3 Marches de Catherine B (named for the storefront’s three steps), is a leading destination for a wealthy, and often famous, clientele eager for limited editions and sought-after styles in porosus crocodile, lizard or the buttery-soft, supple box leather used in the 1960s and ’70s.
When Les 3 Marches opened in 1994 with just a handful of scarves and other accessories, early clients included Catherine Deneuve, who lives nearby, and Inès de la Fressange. Ms. Benier became known for paying up front for resale items, unlike a traditional dépôt-vente, which operates by consignment. She also mingled nightly with the in crowd at the legendary nightclub Castel around the corner.
Word of mouth did the rest. The store became a resource for tastemakers, editors and stylists in search of fashion week looks for their clients.
In a telephone interview, the interior designer Nate Berkus recalled meeting Ms. Benier in the early 1990s, when he was interning in Paris for the jewelry designer Dominique Aurientis. He bought a Hermès Plume carry-on, and though he no longer has the bag, the friendship has endured.
“Catherine’s an original,” he said. “She’s such a complete connoisseur and character, it’s like attending a chapel run by a crazily dressed high priestess of vintage. It’s always this storied, layered experience and you leave with a treasure every time.”
One of the reasons for her success, Ms. Benier said, is that she “isn’t just selling things.” Instead, she approaches inventory with a collector’s eye, styling herself not as a vintage dealer but an antiquaire de mode, or fashion antiquarian.
Another reason is consistency: she has never strayed from her two first loves, Hermès and Chanel (in the Lagerfeld era).
“While craftsmanship is essential, for me luxury has more to do with tradition than elitism,” she said, citing Hermès for its family history and Chanel for the woman who started it all.
“True luxury is small and rare. It’s something you wait for. I prefer that to instant gratification.”
Until 2021 Ms. Benier also sold vintage Chanel and Hermès clothing in another store, just a few doors down from Les 3 Marches, but earlier this year she decided to liquidate the stock — 600 lots including the pink puffer — via the Paris auction house Gros & Delettrez and focus on accessories, her original obsession.
Self-taught, voluble and opinionated, Ms. Benier said she has been interested in fashion for as long as she can remember, just not “new” fashion. Rather, she prefers things with a backstory. Born and bred in the St.-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood, she credits her father, a mosaicist, with instilling in her a respect for exceptional craftsmanship and the belief that artisans put their souls into what they make. Her esoteric outlook she attributes to her astrological sign, Cancer.
“I have a very sensual rapport with objects,” she said. “They speak to me. When I sell a bag, it’s not just a bag, I tell the client where it’s from, why it’s special. You build a connection that doesn’t exist in the virtual realm.”
While she has bought some pieces at retail and at auction, today Ms. Benier mainly sources her stock by fielding inquiries. “Nothing is better than when someone calls and says, ‘I have something for you’.” she said. “I’m always hoping they’ll surprise me. Sometimes it’s worth it, and sometimes it’s not.”
“In life, there are things that belong to us, and then one day you have to part ways. Karma shifts and you have to move on to let something better come along,” Ms. Benier said before her own auction sale.
In pre-Covid times, during fashion week a security detail could often be found blocking the tiny Rue Guisarde while a wealthy client skimmed multiple bags off the shelves. Occasionally, a client would drop in to upgrade a bag by selling an old one back, which Ms. Benier said is how she once wound up flipping the same black Kelly bag three times over.
On a recent morning, a reporter had to wait outside Les 3 Marches while a 20-something customer inquired about a rare miniature Kelly evening clutch in the window. Its price: €14,000.
Les 3 Marches is unapologetically one of the highest-priced vintage shops in town. “My prices reflect the purchase amount,” Ms. Benier said matter-of-factly. “If something was worth money in the beginning, it’s worth money secondhand.”
Still, there are a number of offerings available for much less than current retail prices and less than those listed on resale platforms such as The Real Real, Vestiaire Collective and Hardly Ever Worn It: a vintage Kelly for €4,800 or a Birkin at €7,500 — while if you create a bag wish list at Hermès, the entry retail prices for these styles range from €9,000 to €18,000. And a Chanel 2.55 is listed at €3,800 (retail, €8,000).
That is, if it’s for sale in the first place.
Above Ms. Benier’s desk is an arrangement of objects “purely for the pleasure of the eye,” including a wicker basket designed by Mr. Lagerfeld that once belonged to the flamboyant Italian fashion editor Anna Piaggi, a Lilliputian Kelly in black lizard skin originally commissioned by an unnamed Hollywood actress for her daughter and sunglasses accented with a silhouette of Coco Chanel.
Also scattered around the store: good luck charms following the principles of feng shui. Tucked in an obscure corner is a giant crystal paperweight in the shape of a diamond. Glittery snow globes represent water elements. All but concealed is a 500 franc note (originally worth about $85) received from Linda Evangelista, who stopped in and purchased a Chanel bandanna in the shop’s very early days.
Ms. Benier said she took it as the best possible omen and never once considered spending it.
Then there’s her most prized possession, the original Birkin bag: “the first It-bag of all time.”
Ms. Benier bought the bag in 2000 for a sum she declined to reveal after it resurfaced at auction (the original owner, and namesake, Jane Birkin had sold it at a charity auction for AIDS research in 1994).
“The goose with the golden eggs and magic beans are nothing compared to my joy when I knew the bag was mine,” Ms. Benier said.
“For me, the bag didn’t have a commercial value, because it was never my intent to sell it,” she continued. “For me, it was extraordinary, like finding Adam’s rib. It’s the most beautiful, coveted piece in the history of fashion.”
Since then, she has deflected offers to buy the bag at any price (including from Rihanna), keeping it secreted away except for occasional appearances in exhibitions at MoMA and the department stores Liberty of London and Galeries Lafayette in Paris. It is now on its way back to Paris from the “Bags: Inside Out” exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum in London.
Where it may go next is still unconfirmed. She dreams of placing it at the Maison Gainsbourg, a newly opened museum in the home of Serge Gainsbourg, on the Rue de Verneuil in the Seventh Arrondissement.
“The Birkin was born in 1984, when Jane still lived in that famous house. It’s like part of the family,” she said.
Then there is her collection of some 2,500 Hermès scarves, which Ms. Benier said she believes is one of the largest in the world. She can speak about the designs, and their illustrators, at length. The same goes for a trove of Chanel fashion jewelry.
“I made my passion my métier, but not everything exists for the purpose of making money,” she said. “There’s a memory that needs to live on.”